Richard Rothstein is a Prospect contributing editor, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, and senior fellow at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley School of Law.
An apparent conundrum bedevils our understanding of African American students’ inadequate school performance: Blacks from low-income families have worse academic outcomes—test scores and graduation rates, for example—than similarly low-income whites. To some, this suggests that socioeconomic disadvantage cannot cause black student failure; instead, poorly motivated and trained teachers must be to blame for failing to elicit achievement from blacks as they do from whites. This was the theory motivating the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program.
When the early New Deal first constructed public housing in New York City and elsewhere, projects for blacks were built in existing ghettos or undeveloped areas where planners wanted to shift existing black neighborhoods. But projects for whites were built in existing white neighborhoods, places like Woodside, where the Klein family lived.
This is a story about a story, of how a fiction about impoverished children and public schools corrupts our education policy.
The fiction is the autobiography of Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. Appointed in 2002 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Klein transformed the city’s public-school system by promoting privately managed charter schools to replace regular public schools, by increasing the consequences for principals and teachers of standardized tests, and by attacking union-sponsored due process and seniority provisions for teachers. From his perch as head of the nation’s largest school district, Klein wielded outsize influence, campaigning to persuade districts and states across the nation to adopt the testing and accountability policies he had established in New York. Deputies he trained when he was chancellor now lead school systems not only in New York but also in Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, Newark, and elsewhere.
Consider the Detroit area, including suburbs like Sterling Heights, Grosse Pointe, and Warren, whose segregation presented such challenges to George when he was governor and then housing and urban development secretary.
Thirty percent of students in the Detroit area are now African American and 39 percent are “economically disadvantaged”—that is, eligible for free or subsidized lunches. In Detroit, 88 percent are African American and 85 percent lunch-eligible. Virtually all are from households with income of less than $22,000 a year for a family of four.
Politicians and experts typically refer to schools as “failing” if they are filled with low-income children with low test scores. Faced with enormous challenges, such schools may be doing as well as they possibly can, though. African American children from low-income urban families often suffer from health problems that lead to school absences; from frequent or sustained parental unemployment that provokes family crises; from rent or mortgage defaults causing household moves that entail changes of teachers and schools, with a resulting loss of instructional continuity; and from living in communities with high levels of crime and disorder, where schools spend more time on discipline and less on instruction and where stress interferes with academic achievement. With school segregation continuing to increase, these children are often isolated from the positive peer influences of middle-class children who were regularly read to when young, whose homes are filled with books, whose environment includes many college-educated professional role models, and whose parents have greater educational experience and the motivation such experience brings as well as the time, confidence, and ability to monitor schools for academic quality.